Wallerstein on the U.S., Israel and the Middle East

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[H/t to A.L.]

Immanuel Wallerstein discusses “The U.S. in the Middle East” in the recent issue of New Politics (Summer 2008, whole number 45, Vol XII, no 1). Wallerstein is the former President of the International Sociological Association (1994-1998), and chair of the international Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1993-1995). He is known for his pioneering work in the domains of world-systems analysis.

Here is the opening paragraph:

In 2007, the United States has no foreign policy involvement greater and more significant than its military presence in Iraq. And in 2007, the United States has no closer ally and co-actor on the world scene than Israel. The relationship is arguably closer than the vaunted U.S.- British link. Neither an involvement of the United States in the Middle East nor the close links the United States has forged with Israel have always been the prevailing policy. On the contrary, both current realities are the outcome of a long and sinuous trajectory. We shall try to account for this evolution in terms of three different actors within the United States: the political elites, the American Jewish community, and the rest of the population. We shall then try to evaluate the likely evolution of this policy over the coming decades.

As one would expect from Wallerstein this article is a very sweeping overview, grand in scope and perspective. Yet this more a leftist analysis of foreign policy than a history of the region. In fairness to Wallerstein, this is evident in the title of the article. Yet something important is missing, the real agency exercised by the Yishuv Zionists and Arab nationalists. For example, Wallerstein glosses over what was happening in Palestine in 1945-48. How did the Zionists compel the British to leave?

What is always absent in these broad “World Systems” analyses of the past is the specificities of history. The uniqueness of regions, peoples, movements, and ideologies is lost. Instead of examining what was happening on the ground, reality gets reduced to the flow and accumulation of capital, relations between core and periphery, etc. As a result, basic domain knowledge of the subject may be lacking. For example, in his discussion of the rise of Reagan, Wallerstein writes:

“When Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, one of the factors that made his election possible was the emergence of a new group that we now call the Christian right.”

American conservatism has contained traditionalist, libertarian, and hawkish wings since the 1940s. Most students of American conservatism have heard of Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Christopher Dawson, pioneers of the traditionalist wing. This is not arcane information.

Also, a lot more liberal (“assimilationist,” in Wallerstein’s terminology) Jews supported Israel (prior to 1967) than Wallerstein is acknowledging. Liberal shuls on the west coast were supporting Israel in late 1940s-early 1950s. I suspect similar things were happening here in NYC. I’m talking about liberal Democrats, not self-identified communists, socialists, etc.

Wallerstein identifies 1967 as a turning point and it was. But, again, this can’t be separated from what has happening on the ground here in the United States. Jews were being presented as exploiters of “the community,” the New Left had become extremely anti-Zionist, the riots of 1968, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike the same year, etc.

This statement was simply ridiculous:

By the late 1960s, there were few Jewish workers or Jewish poor left in the United States.”

Wallerstein should have checked with the Jewish Labor Committee, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, synagogues, the UJA and the rest of the folks active on these issues.

Anyway, have a look at the article and judge for yourself.

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